Do you think Einstein would be happy with the progress we’ve made since his death?
Yeah, I think so. You know, everybody wants everything to run faster, but he died long before the age of precision cosmology. He died before the cosmic microwave background was discovered. When he died in 1955, you could legitimately argue that there may not have been a hot Big Bang. Now you can see we’ve made great progress, so I think he would have loved to see that, he would have loved to see the space age. He died not seeing us launch anything into space.
Where is the best bet for life beyond Earth?
Probably Mars. There’s a lot of subsurface water on Mars. And that looks like the conditions were right [for life] to emerge, and it may still be ripe for life to persist. Europa I think, again, it looks like the conditions are there.
It looks like the origin of life on Earth was around 4 billion years ago, possibly even earlier than that, which means that life began pretty much as soon as it could on Earth, which perhaps gives you a sense of inevitability. I think that points to the fact that anywhere you get those conditions, you may well get life. But we don’t know.
Who is going to be the first to Mars, SpaceX or NASA?
I think it will probably be a collaboration. SpaceX are not really in a race with NASA, they’re a contractor of NASA at the moment. What there is is an interesting philosophical position, which people like Elon Musk have, which is that in order to make things better here on Earth, we have to go out into space. And I believe that’s correct. There are an infinite amount of resources out there waiting for us, and so the idea that countries have to compete for a limited amount of resources on the planet and build barriers, that becomes utterly redundant once you have a space-faring civilization. That’s a key part of what people like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson are doing.
Would you go to Mars?
I think I’d go on the suborbital flights. I don’t think I’d go to Mars, because I think that’s for a younger generation of pioneers as it were. I’m probably too old and not prepared to go and stand on a frontier and be like one of the people who first went to America over 100 years ago. It’s hard work, I’m not that kind of person [laughs]. But I’d like to see the Earth from space.
Life on Mars? Maybe. NASA